What is Syphilis?

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection that can cause serious health problems if not treated.

How Could I Get it?

You can catch syphilis by touching a syphilis sore, or by having unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex with a person who has the infection. ‘Unprotected’ means sex without a condom or a dam.  Some people may not have any sores, but still pass on the infection. A pregnant woman with syphilis can pass the infection on to her baby before it is born.

What are the Symptoms?

There are three general stages to syphilis infection.

• In the First Stage, you will usually get a painless sore called a ‘chancre’ that you might not even notice. It looks like a roundish area of broken skin that has an infected centre. It can be weepy, and have pus coming from it. You can have a chancre around the vagina or penis, the mouth or throat, or the rectum/anus. This usually clears up after two to six weeks but the infection remains in your body – and some people have no symptoms at all.  You can pass on the infection to other people at this stage.

• About 3-16 months later you might get a rash on the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet, and feel like you have the flu for a while – maybe weeks, or even months. The rash is slightly lumpy, but not itchy or painful. You can still pass on the infection at this stage.

• In the Third Stage you can develop problems with your brain, liver or arteries. This can last for a long time. By this stage you can’t pass syphilis on to another person, but you get very sick. If the syphilis affects too many important organs, it can cause death. 

How Can I Prevent it?

You can protect yourself from syphilis by using condoms, dams and gloves correctly when you have sex. For useful tips on using condoms, check out this factsheet.

What Happens in a Syphilis Test?

You can have a special blood test to check whether you have syphilis, or a sample from a syphilis sore can be examined under a microscope.  Blood tests during pregnancy include syphilis tests to prevent the infection being passed on to the baby.  You can be treated safely for syphilis while pregnant.

To find out where you can go for a sexual health check, call FP NSW Healthline on 1300 65 88 86 to talk to a reproductive and sexual health nurse. Talking to the nurse is confidential and anonymous.

Is There a Cure?

Yes! Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. You will need to have one or more injections, a week apart. It’s important to tell your sexual partners that you have syphilis because they will need to be treated too. If they don’t get treatment and you have sex with them again you may get re-infected.

All your partners over the last three months should also be contacted and treated. This is called ‘contact tracing’. The doctor or nurse will give you a letter to give to all your partners so they can go to a doctor for treatment.

After your treatment the doctor will do a few follow-up tests to make sure the infection is gone. These tests will usually happen 3, 6, 12 and 24 months after your first treatment.

Once you have a clear follow-up test, you can be sure you won’t pass the infection on to your partners.

If I Go to a Clinic Will They Tell My Parents?

According to the law you can ask for and agree to medical care for yourself once you are 16 years old. At the sexual health clinic, discussion with you and the information you give the staff is completely confidential. It cannot be shared with your parents or people you know, unless the law requires staff to do so.  An example of this would be if health staff thought you were at risk of serious harm. In this case the clinic is required to report this to DOCS (Department of Community Services). Another example might be if your files were required in a Court case.  If you are between 14 and 16 you may still be able to agree to your own medical care, but this can vary in individual cases.

Doctors are also required to report cases of syphilis to the Government so they can monitor the disease in Australia. Your identifying details are not used here, though – just a number. They don’t need to know who you are, but want to keep track of how many people are getting the infection.